Natural Architecture, By Petrus Talemarianus

Preface to the English Translation
By Joscelyn Godwin

In offering this translation of L’architecture naturelle to the English-speaking public, we do not pretend to resolve all the mysteries surrounding the book and its authorship. By its own testimony, it was written in Latin by one Petrus Talemarianus, during the hundred months preceding the summer solstice of 1944, then offered to Alexandre Rouhier, who oversaw its translation into French, its editing, and its illustration. In 1949, the small Parisian publisher Les Éditions Véga issued the first edition of 252 copies, printed on separate folios with a page size of 22 by 15 inches and contained in a red cloth slipcase. In 1982, Véga issued a full-sized facsimile reprint and also a version in smaller format, about the size of the present volume.

            Where such an unusual production is concerned, anything is credible, even the existence somewhere of an original Latin manuscript. But a gentle mystification is also possible, and indeed respectable for works of esoteric wisdom. The United States Catalog of Copyright Entries (Jan.-June 1977) identifies Petrus Talemarianus as Alexandre Rouhier himself, on the authority of Odette Rouhier (his daughter[1]). Not much has been published about Dr. Rouhier, but he is famous for one thing: a pharmacologist by profession, he was a pioneer in the first-hand study of hallucinogenic drugs and the author of the classic book on peyote: Le Peyotl, la plante qui fait les yeux émerveillés (Peyotl, the plant that fills the eyes with wonder, 1927), and the shorter Les plantes divinatoires (Plants of divination, 1927). At least five years earlier, he had been lecturing on the subject to a “Groupe Paléosophique” whose members included the Belgian composer and theorist Ernest Britt (1857-after 1950), the mathematician and historian Francis Warrain (1867-1940), and the psychical researcher Eugène Caslant.[2]

            These names introduce us to an obscure group of scientifically-minded esotericists, who were searching not only in traditions like Kabbalah and Platonism but also in mathematics and the physical sciences for the links between mind and body, God and man, the Absolute and the manifest. Francis Warrain is probably the most significant of them, and is the sole contemporary authority cited in L’architecture naturelle. The Editor adds that he submitted the manuscript to him, and includes an unpublished essay of Warrain’s as an appendix. Warrain’s difficult works ranged over higher mathematics, Kabbalah, music theory, monographs on Kepler’s cosmology and on the polymathic Charles Henry (1859-1926), and culminated with an immense unfinished study of the Polish “philosopher of the Absolute,” Hoëné Wronski (1776-1853).

            If L’architecture naturelle virtually ignores the twentieth century, it is hardly more cognizant of nineteenth-century authorities. Apart from the mathematicians named in the section on regular solids, only two names appear:  Charles-Edouard Brown-Séquard (1817-1894), an important medical researcher whose discoveries helped Charles Henry to develop his own theories of psychophysics, and Wronski, whose life inspired Balzac’s novel La recherche de l’absolu. The focus grows sharper when we add that Ernest Britt, too, was a lifelong admirer of Wronski, and that he and his wealthy second wife supported Wronskian enterprises in France and Poland, including the publication by the same house of Véga of Warrain’s L’Oeuvre philosophique de Hoëné Wronski (three vols., 1933-38). If with this loose circle of French Wronskians we have not reached the creator(s) of L’architecture naturelle, at least they were tangential to it.

            Some readers will soon spot another influence: that of René Guénon (1886-1951), the father of French Traditionalism. Although Talemarianus never mentions Guénon by name, he sows clues by using such phrases as “the multiple states of being,” and by basing his metaphysical hierarchy, from “Non-manifestation” downwards, on similar principles to Guénon’s. Like the latter, he takes it for granted that wisdom is to be sought in the ancient religious and philosophical traditions of East and West; that these traditions, rightly understood, are in accord with one another; and that the monuments of literature and architecture, at least up to the Renaissance period, encode a perennial esoteric knowledge.

            The connection with Guénon goes further, for it was on his initiative that Éditions Véga, publisher of L’architecture naturelle, was founded. This happened in 1929-30, during Guénon’s brief liaison with an American heiress, Mary Wallace Shillito (1876 or 1878-1938).[3] Mary was the daughter of a Cincinnati department store magnate, John Shillito (1808-1879), and had recently lost her second husband, Assan Farid Dina (1871-1928). Guénon’ wife had also died in the previous year, and as soon as the two of them met, reputedly in Chacornac’s occult bookshop, they became close friends. They decided to start a publishing house to specialize in traditional texts; Guénon would select and edit them, and Mary Shillito would provide the funds. As a first step, they planned a trip to Egypt, to gather materials.

            This was not how things turned out. The couple left for Egypt on March 5, 1930, but after three months, Mary returned alone to France, where she immediately married the aforementioned Ernest Britt. Guénon stayed in Egypt for the rest of his life. Véga did publish two of his works, and those among his most important: Le symbolisme de la croix (The symbolism of the cross, 1931) and Les états multiples de l’être (The multiple states of being, 1932), but its loyalty had shifted. Before the end of the year, flush with Mary Shillito’s money, it had brought out a luxurious, limited edition of Britt’s La lyre d’Apollon (Apollo’s lyre); in 1931 appeared Warrain’s La théodicée de la Kabbale; and Véga remained devoted to the Wronskians for the rest of the decade. [4]

            L’architecture naturelle could well be called a Traditionalist work in the Guénonian sense, but it lacks the negative attitude assumed by most of those who wear that label. While Guénon, in such works as The Crisis of the Modern World and The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times, was one of modernity’s sharpest critics, Talemarianus does not bother with polemics or utter apocalyptic warnings. With the exceptions mentioned above, he simply ignores anything later than the seventeenth century. Rabelais, Kepler, and the Château of Versailles are as far as he cares to go. [5] Having begun his “Report” early in 1936 and labored at it “for a hundred months” that took him throughout the second World War, he finished it on June 24, 1944, during the heat of the Normandy invasion—of which it bears not the slightest trace.

            Véga’s publication of it in 1949 was another act of positive defiance of the times. The extravagance and gigantic size of the book, its superb typography and hundreds of illustrations, and the declared intention of teaching architects how to build houses and palaces, churches, and temples with natural materials, in accordance with natural laws, were as contrary as possible to the drabness and shoddiness of the post-war world.

            Much of the credit for the book’s beauty goes to Marcel Nicaud, an employee of the French national museums whom Rouhier apparently brought into the project. Nicaud’s other known work includes book illustrations and the copying and restoration of medieval wall-paintings.[6] The decision to use no photographic reproductions, but to have Nicaud redraw even well-known alchemical engravings, as well as a host of artefacts from every corner of the globe, gives L’architecture naturelle its graphic unity. The only comparison that comes to mind is Manly Palmer Hall’s masterpiece of 1928, The Secret Teachings of All Ages, with its fine typography and color-plates by J. Augustus Knapp.

            As for the enigmatic figure of Petrus Talemarianus, the catalogues of some rare book dealers, evidently privy to inside information, identify him not as Alexandre Rouhier but as “Bordeaux-Montrieux.” That is the surname of a distinguished French family, a branch of which owns the Château de Talmay, in the village of that name east of Dijon. [7] The whole atmosphere of L’architecture naturelle seems in accord with its authorship by an aristocratic recluse, who chose as a pseudonym a Latinization of his ancestral home (Talemarianus = “of Talmay”), while Rouhier, the pharmacologist-editor, inserted the incongruous references to the personalities and interests of the Wronskian circle. There is evidently a field for investigation here, but our responsibility to the book has not yet allowed us to pursue it further.[8]



Joscelyn Godwin, Hamilton, New York

Ariel Godwin, Columbus, Ohio

June 2006

[1] Odette Rouhier is identified as Dr. Rouhier’s daughter, and quoted on the subject of her father’s relations with René Guénon, in Jean Robin, René Guénon, Témoin de la tradition (Paris: Guy Trédaniel, 1986), p. 202 n.

[2] Information on the Groupe Paléosophique and on Ernest and Mary Britt comes from the Britt papers in the library of the University of Texas, Austin. See J. Godwin,  Music and the Occult: French Musical Philosophies, 1750-1950 (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 1995), 99-126, for more on the theories of Wronski, Britt, Henry, and Warrain.

[3] On Mary Shillito and Guénon, see Jean-Pierre Laurant, Le sens caché dans l’oeuvre de René Guénon (Lausanne: L’Age d’Homme, 1975), p. 210; Jean Robin, René Guénon, Témoin de la tradition (Paris: Guy Trédaniel, 1986), pp. 201-202; Mark Sedgwick, Against the Modern World (Oxford: Oxford  University Press, 2004), pp. 74-75, 288. See also The History of Cincinnati and Hamilton County (Cincinnati: S.B. Nelson & Co., 1894), pp. 476-477, which describes John Shillito’s career and states that at the time of writing, his daughter Mary was married to “Henry P. Rogers of New York City.” The Château des Avenières in Cruseilles, between Annecy and Geneva, is now a hotel and maintains its own website, which states that was built by Mary Shillito in 1907-1917 and shows the gaudy decorations, with images from the Tarot and all religions, painted by Assan Faride Dina, “born of a Hindu father and a French mother.” Time Magazine, Dec. 10, 1923, reports that Assan Dina, a Hindu millionaire, and his wife are going to give France the world’s biggest observatory at the cost of $6,000,000. La Salévienne, a magazine of Genevan-Savoyard history also accessible on the Internet, gives Assan Dina’s dates and the date of his marriage to Mary (June 23, 1913), and reproduces a photograph of the Britts in 1932, breaking ground for a road donated by them.

[4] According to the history of the Château des Avenières (see previous note), Britt exhausted Mary’s fortune in five years; they sold the château in 1936 and divorced in 1937. She died in an accident the following year. The financing of L’architecture naturelle must therefore have come from elsewhere.

[5] It is also almost wholly lacking in references to Islam: a tradition that did not figure much in Guénon’s works before he left France, and whose esoteric dimension (Sufism) was then hardly known in Europe.

[6] Searches of the Internet during 2005-06, notably that of the Patrimoine de France and of the Centre des monuments nationaux, have shown that Marcel Nicaud was active from the 1940s until at least 1967 copying medieval wall-paintings for archival purposes and restoring them. He also illustrated Jean Marquès-Rivière, Rituel de magie tantrique hindoue  (Véga, 1939) and Yüan Kuang: Méthode pratique de divination chinoise par le “Yi-king” (Véga, 1950).

[7] See, for example, Catalog no. 314 of Burgersdijk en Niermans (Leiden, Nov. 20-21, 2001), lot 74.

[8] Thanks to M. J.-P. Laurant of the École Pratique des Hautes Études for apprising us of the Bordeaux-Montrieux connection.